Speech: Stop and Search – Police Accountability and the Politics of Black Solidarity


 Delivered on 21 October 2014 at Bradford College
by Ratna Lachman

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address you on the subject of stop and search as part of your Black History Month celebrations.

All the data tells us that if you are a young person of colour – like most of you present here today – then you will be a prime target for stop and search operations. The evidence of BME youth disproportionality in stop and search is incontrovertible.

In October last year, a colleague and I conducted a survey on stop and search as part of a Home Office consultation, just minutes from where we are today. We stopped 43 people randomly – most of them students from Bradford College and the University and asked them about their experiences of stop and search.

There were a few rich comments that I cannot repeat here but what struck us was the palpable anger and deep distrust around policing practices.

88% of the interviewees said they had been stopped and searched or knew someone, and they believed the powers had been used unfairly.

4 out of 5 of the respondents said that they believed they had been racially and religiously profiled and the searches had left them feeling demeaned, intimidated and violated and they believed it was an abuse of police power.

So to understand why ethnic minorities are stopped and searched disproportionately we need to understand the organizational culture that reproduces such behavior. Put quite simply – the police force in West Yorkshire as in most parts of the country is institutionally racist and this is borne out by the official data.

Under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in West Yorkshire there were 40,517 searches between 2012-2013: an 8% increase from the previous year.

Under Section 1, Black people were twice as likely to be stopped and searched than White people whereas for Asians and Mixed ethnic groups, the figure was 1.5 times. Significantly, only 7% led to an arrest.

Under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act – where police believe that serious violence may take place or that people are carrying offensive weapons or drugs are involved – there were 93 stop and searches.

Under this Section Black people were stopped 3 times the rate of White people and Asians at twice the rate. The arrest rate was 13%.

It is important to remember that the data does not include conviction figures in a court of law.

These trends of disproportionality also feature under anti-terror legislation but the arrest figures are significantly higher because they tend to be intelligence-led and therefore more accurate.

While stop and search legislation treats people of colour as potential perpetrators of crime, in reality ethnic minorities are more likely to be victims of hate crime – i.e. they are more likely to be verbally harassed, bullied, attacked and killed than they are to commit acts of violence.

We know this because JUST compiles a weekly Racial Justice Bulletin and every week I struggle with the editorial content because of the sheer volume of stories on racist crimes and racial injustice across the UK.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales highlights that there were 278,000 hate crimes last year. Of this, 154,000 (55%) incidents were race-related and 70,000 (25.2%) were religious hate crime. These figures highlight that the idea of a post-racial society is a myth. Instead the aggressive Islamaphobia that has accompanied the government’s so called ‘war on terror’ and the ugly attack on immigrants has meant that Muslims and ethnic minorities are being disproportionately targeted.

Clearly if your experience of the police has been negative, the chances of a race or religiously motivated crime being reported is going to be slim. So we end up in a vicious cycle where the police claim that race hate crime is declining but the lived experience of ethnic minority people point to a gross under-reporting of hate crime.

So how can we turn the disproportionality in stop and search and the negative policing experiences of ethnic minorities around?

Firstly know your rights – the information is widely available and your student’s union should be making it available for you.

Secondly do not be afraid to use the term Institutional Racism because language has a potency – until ethnic minorities get a fair deal, we owe it to the memory of Stephen Lawrence and his family to continue demanding for justice in policing and criminal justice outcomes.

The more difficult task however is to hold the police to account for their actions. Over the years JUST has supported BME police officers who have been subjected to prolonged periods of bullying, harassment and false charges. We have supported female victims who have been brutalised at the hands of the police. We have worked with the IPCC to expose the police complaints’ system as being unfit for purpose. However it has been extremely difficult to hold the police to account.

I would like to share some of the challenges we have faced.

Two years ago we did a ‘mystery shopper’ survey of hate crime reporting centres across West Yorkshire to see how the police dealt with victims of hate crime. When we called the police they were clueless about how to deal with a victim. When we turned up at a number of hate crime reporting centres, they had no idea that designated centres existed. The leaflets on reporting hate crime were out of date – in short the arrangements were completely unfit for purpose.

We submitted our findings to the police and rather than deciding to work with JUST, they funded another organization who in turn sub-contracted the work to a consultant from Cumbria to advice them on establishing hate crime reporting centres.

This is a classic example of divide and rule and it demonstrates that unless we have solidarity and work from an ethical place then those with power and money will seek to drive a wedge between in an effort to evade accountability.

This framework of accountability is even more important for Bradford College and Bradford University in the context of the government’s so called ‘war on terror’. Make no mistake that you are under the police and security spotlight.  Uniquely, both Bradford University and College have a large number of young Muslims who not only have a strong faith identity but are also technologically savvy.

As Muslims, you are considered to be susceptible to the influence of radical preachers and there is suspicion that you are likely to use the internet as a portal to terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda and ISIS.

It is more than likely that your Muslim societies are heavily surveilled; ‘plain clothes prevent’ officers are in the college and your internet use is monitored. In the present environment universities and colleges have become extensions of the state’s surveillance arm and Muslims particularly, are treated as suspect communities.

The problem is that the framework for police and intelligence accountability under PREVENT and CONTEST – the government’s programme for countering radicalization, extremism and terrorism – is even weaker than the one for stop and search.

Last year, JUST asked to become members of Bradford’s PREVENT sub-group because we wanted to scrutinize its operations – we must have attended no more than 3-4 meetings and the group appears to have been disbanded. It was notable that neither the university nor college was represented on the group, despite the fact that young people are prime targets under anti-terror laws.

The issue of accountability is really important for us because we believe other current structures too, such as the Independent Advisory Group, do not work.

So I come back to the question – if we cherish intellectual freedoms, civil liberties and human rights, what are we going to do about holding the police to account?

The Police and Crime Commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson recently announced the establishment of a Youth scrutiny group – it is critical that you are represented on the group.

Or better still you should work together with Leeds, Leeds Beckett, Huddersfield and Bradford universities to set up your own scrutiny framework with your own terms of reference and invite the police to report back to you.

Working in partnership and a spirit of unity with those individuals and organisations who are committed to tackling the abuse of power makes us stronger. I know this because I was part of a grassroots campaign in which people of all religions and colour joined together to demand justice for the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the reason we secured amendments to the Race Relations Act was because we were united in our demands.

There is no doubt that the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and the 7/7 London bombings have changed the policing and security paradigm of the UK. I would argue that in attempting to recalibrate the balance between public safety and liberty we have paid a heavy price in terms of sacrificing our freedoms.

These events have also changed how ethnic minority communities relate to each other.  Over the last decade, Muslims have been demonized and terrorized following 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings and it is to our collective shame that non-Muslims have not stood by them in their time of need.

However on the flip side, I have also seen Muslim organisations become bloated on government funding aimed at tackling radicalization, extremism and terrorism. Rather than fighting Islamaphobia on a civil liberties and human rights platform, the struggle has been defined in divisive terms – the Muslim Us and the non-Muslim Them – and this has undermined solidarity.

My message is simple – whether it is disproportionality in stop and search; institutional racism; or institutional Islamaphobia – we will never be able to hold those who have power over us to account unless we develop a broad coalition of solidarity.

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